Wading Home

After the spill, after the unscheduled swim, after the rod 
went missing, after the recovery and the inevitable reflection—after the realization that what had once been was now gone, there was nothing to do but wait.
by Scott Sadil
From the April 2009 Issue

When she feels her boots break loose, felt soles skidding with the current, Sarah Newell manages a flurry of awkward gestures that seem to her the stuff of lowest comedy.

For a moment she thinks she might stay put, stop short of a serious drenching. Her movement downstream suggests the languid pace of flight in dreams. But as she kicks through the water, scraping boots against rock, she recognizes she is already moving too quickly; she can’t possibly stop herself now. Swimming, thinks Sarah Newell, dragging her rod through the current, cold water spilling over the tops of her waders—and at the same moment she names her predicament, the thought of it is replaced with an image of the coyote she watched that winter carried through the rapids at Rattlesnake campground, not 50 yards downstream from where the Deschutes now draws her inextricably into its potent embrace.

Yet from the outset it seems almost a release, this floating at the margin of the wide river, the water cool beneath the press of hot dry air fueled by sunlight pouring into the jagged tear of the high desert canyon—release, moreover, from the weight of culpability that everyone in her life of late seems so quick to calculate in response to her every mistake, shortcoming, or failure to please. She feels, instead—what?—content, she decides, or suddenly free, at a loss to do anything more than ride this thing out. Just like the coyote, she recalls, its head held high, bobbing through the standing waves of the downstream rapid while she and David, a new distraction in her life, watched from the bank through the sparkling light of an icy whitefish outing two days before Valentine’s.

She certainly feels no danger. An ocean swimmer in California since she could barely walk, she has no fear around water except when faced with dangerous riptides or the presence of sharks. Or waterfalls, she thinks, amused by the notion until she remembers for the first time in years that a cousin of hers, a son of her mother’s only sister, died three decades earlier at Shear’s Falls, 15 miles upriver, an accident no one in the family attempted to explain beyond alcohol and the categorical foolishness of attempting to survive the falls’ murderous hydraulics.

Drawn into heavier current, she feels the subtle sensation of acceleration—akin, she notes, to the surge of a lifting wave, although infinitely slower—and in the deliberate buildup to the rapids themselves she pictures again the little buff-colored coyote rising and falling through the chain of ragged waves, an act of comic submission, she remembers thinking, the coyote’s face and beady eyes expressionless, with no trace of concern or even effort as it held itself upright, dog-paddling down the throat of the rapids before settling into the wide eddy and curling off toward the steep rocks worn smooth by eons of current.

“Son of a bitch,” said David, his voice breathy, reverential. And even then, Sarah recalls, gliding with the river, one hand on her favorite two-hander and the other, having drawn her wading belt tight now circling just beneath the surface, balancing her while her booted feet and buoyant legs tread water below—even then she might have been warned, before she knew what this tone would come to mean, how she felt she had just been commanded to respond in a certain way while her wannabe lover squeezed her hand as though the scene before them were somehow his doing.

At the lip of the chute, Sarah’s downstream progress abruptly stops. She’s spun by the current, lifted, and pulled straight and forced flat on her stomach into the surging surface before she understands that her rod or line has snagged on something. Head up, current pressed to her neck, she tightens her grip, refusing to let go of the most expensive piece of sporting equipment she’s ever owned. The rod flexes and bucks and she’s surprised nothing breaks, and then she can feel the rod vibrating in her hand, a kind of profound tuning-fork vibration that she suddenly connects to the pale gray branch poking, just upstream, through the current, holding her in place like a stake linked to a dog’s chain

For a moment she thinks she’s strong enough to pull herself up the rod, climb all 13 feet of it hand over hand and manage somehow to untangle it or break the branch or even the tip of the rod itself, so that she doesn’t lose everything. Then she knows it’s impossible. Glare off the water distorts her vision, playing a queer trick on perspective so that the offending snag appears as a distant buoy across a vast reach of ocean. She swipes at her eyes and realizes her sunglasses are gone, Croakie and all, along with her hat—and the sudden recognition that these things have vanished, without her knowing when and how, brings her situation fully into focus: the overpowering strength of the river, the first trace of fear penetrating her effortless cool.

Still, she hangs fast to the rod. Forty-two freaking years old, she thinks fiercely. Fit as a freaking twenty-year-old; strong enough to hang on tight in the damned Deschutes—and I’m worried about losing my pretty blue Thomas & Thomas? Having to cry for help? Needing another freaking man to bail me out?

Questions and self-pity aside, Sarah Newell holds on until the current swells her waders to a point of resistance that overwhelms her formidable strength and determination. Letting go of the rod, she tips immediately upright, buoyed by the zero-gravity sensation of her body encased in water, and once again she pictures the coyote dog-paddling downstream, whether by choice or by accident she’d wondered ever since—and now she mimics the animal’s abject posture and loss of control, bobbing effortlessly and without incident through the rapids’ standing waves, with little to distinguish her from the coyote but sudden tears in her eyes.

Half an hour later, Sarah feels it was all somehow a silly scare. Naked save for a prudent black sports thong purchased from Patagonia but never yet shown to anyone else—not even her husband, Rail—she warms herself amid the drying clothes spread atop the same rock shelf onto which she and David had watched the coyote climb before shaking itself dry, the water leaping from its coat and radiant in the winter sunlight yet capable of freezing, she remembers thinking, before showering the ice beneath its paws.

Seated, propped up on her arms behind her, she imagines herself an old lizard basking in the sun, a picture she immediately rejects as she studies the sun-damaged skin running past her knees before finally fading into the pale recesses of her outstretched thighs. She closes her eyes deliberately, studies the patterns of the harsh light’s afterimages swirling inside her eyelids, a sensation her brother had claimed since they were grade-schoolers was the closest anyone got to reliving the past. Were he here to see me now, she thinks, her eyes still closed, relishing the warmth of the smooth rock beneath her.

The thought of Phil, dead now only three months, causes a slow contraction at the base of her sternum, a steady tightening that expands through her rib cage and leaves her all but breathless. What would he have said, to find me sitting here like this now? The consummate big brother, no doubt he would have told her to cover up, “stop casting bait” or some such awful innuendo—the very sort of remark he made on a family Baja trip the first time she needed tampons and he caught her removing one in the ill-defined “kybow” area in the sand dunes beyond camp.

Phil’s death, fears Sarah, has made the rest of the men in her life superfluous. She suddenly grows self-conscious about her bare legs and naked breasts, and as she pulls the damp Capilene top over her head she wishes desperately she could carry on some sort of conversation with the dead, a trick she has attempted repeatedly these past three months, while feeling certain she has read far too many stories in which characters enjoy this good fortune for the possibility of its being real.

Still, she has little trouble imagining her brother, dead or alive, advising her to get dressed and get back across the river—unless she wants the latest rendition of Prince Charming to come to her soggy-ass rescue. And all that implies.

She feels the sweat already rising against the fabric tight to her skin, and she recalls her brother teasing her day after day at the end of workouts before her first lifeguard tryouts because she was a girl and she couldn’t “go down to skin.” Furious the day after she was selected an alternate rather than a full-time summer guard, she kept as close to her brother as she could during their final hundred-yard sprint through the deep sand approaching the pier, and as they strolled about catching their breath in the shadows between the pilings, she suddenly pulled off her T-shirt and new sports bra and stood in front of her brother as if she didn’t care who saw her young pale breasts. Whether he was surprised or not she couldn’t tell, as he glanced at her for but a moment before he turned away and took off running again down the beach while she hurriedly pulled on her clothes.

An hour passes and Sarah is still standing waist-deep in the river, having decided she has no reason to hurry back to the other side in the steamy confines of her wading garments. The occasional truck or SUV kicks up dust in the distance, while on the water three rafts and a drift boat have slid by within casting distance, not one person spotting her after she caught sight of each group far upstream and then held perfectly still, verifying her conviction that unless something moves people see only what they expect to see. She recalls the look of incomprehension that clung to Rail’s face when he found her soaking in their backyard hot tub after the cold day on the river with David, when they watched the coyote cross and, later, in his truck, had made out like teenagers in the empty campground at Jones Canyon. She wonders what more Rail suspects about her relationship with David, her speculation free of guilt by force of her decision—at whatever cost to David—to restrict any hanky-panky to well-spaced sessions of necking and heavy petting.

But this show of faithfulness, she thinks, the chill of the water swimming around her thighs, serves only to heighten her sense of inadequacy, as she sees herself unwilling to leave a pointless marriage yet thoroughly convinced she needs a lover like she needs a kick in the teeth.

“The hell with them,” she says out loud, a feeling about men she traces directly back to her brother’s sudden departure from her life, his long descent into isolation, and whatever carried him to his end. She looks upstream as far as she can see, scans erthe long sweep of cottonwoods tilted as though ready to fall into the river, the road atop the old railroad grade beyond them, the somber face of the shaded canyon wall. Except for the water, nothing seems to move. She wonders, if she waits long enough, who will show up first, David or Rail.

The hell with them both, she thinks, unwilling to let herself start crying again after the wave of grief she rode through the rapids. She lifts the hem of her top and settles again into the river, the water rising past the silly thong and up over her firm belly, the sun, lower now, sharp against her nose and cheeks. She lets the bottom of the shirt fall and runs her hands through the water and lifts it to her face. She draws in a slow breath that seems to expand her submerged pelvis, and she wishes simply for her brother’s lasting peace, a thought she is sure means nothing but is the very best she or anyone can do.

Dry once more and wadered, the sun slipping toward the lip of the canyon, Sarah rummages through her vest and a little emergency dry bag, stashed in the pouch of her waders before leaving her Subaru in a turnout upriver between Cedar Island and the top of the long run of broken, complex water that has both delighted and bruised her and her ego for as long as she’s searched for steelhead willing to rise to the fly. She expects to find nothing but her usual meager snack—today a packet of trail mix and a single flattened granola bar. Eating, she pictures the avocado and Swiss on rye she impulsively laced that morning with a slice of raw onion and a shower of pepper before squeezing it into a Baggie and setting it neatly atop two Fuji apples, a baggie full of tortilla chips, and three homemade oatmeal cookies, all neatly enclosed within the small icebox now in her car, along with the thermos of coffee and her cell phone—the latter useless in the canyon. She finishes off her ration of store-bought water and returns the plastic bottle down the zippered slit at the back of her vest. Curious, she digs two fingers down to the bottom of the little dry bag, finding matches, two Band-Aids, a tampon, a tube of Blistex, ibuprofen—until she’s reminded of her brother demanding during her sophomore year that she always carry $20 and a condom in her purse because if something happened it didn’t matter who was at fault: it was the woman who had to live with the consequences.

The sun dips from view. Sunlight recedes from a small portion of the river, but at a pace so slow that she quickly loses interest in watching the progress—or regress—she can’t decide what it is she’s actually looking at. Or for, she concludes, glancing up and down the road for a vehicle coming in either direction. In the shade she feels the cool of the river rise up and erase the heat, as if someone had opened the windows of a house, and she recalls waiting summer evenings near Tamarack along Pacific Coast Highway for one of her parents to pick her up long after her shifts ended.

She never knew when they would arrive. Research professors at UCSD, they had both drifted so far apart and so deeply into their separate laboratories that they remained available to her for only the most rudimentary attention. Other guards and surfers stopped and offered her rides, but her brother had told her that if she rode home with anyone he’d hear about it and “kick hell out of” whoever it was, a threat she believed with the certainty of sunrise even though it had been delivered as matter-of-factly as a promise to help with her algebra.

She stands at the edge of the water as though waiting for something, and then realizes that her unsettled state of mind is partly because she’s poised here along this blessed river in ebbing light without her fishing rod. There could be steelhead holding at the edge of the big eddy directly in front of her, their mere existence a possibility she finds too staggering to consider. She feels sick again about losing her rod, not because she cares anything about catching a steelhead right now but because it was hers, paid for with her own money, the very first rod she ever shopped for and selected all by herself, and she still savors the irrational view that no two fly rods cast exactly alike.

But “gone is gone,” as her brother used to say. And for the first time since getting swept down the river she pictures him in a harsher relief, no longer merely a big brother but closer to yet another man in her life, remote, elusive, enigmatic—or was he simply, by then, withdrawn? He appeared unannounced at her wedding, five years after she had last seen him at their mother’s funeral, mercifully following less than two months the death of their father—a victim, implausibly, of heart failure at the age of 65. Whether her mother had a hand in her own death, as her mother’s sister suggested, seemed to Sarah so far removed from anyone else’s business that she simply shelved the issue alongside questions of an afterlife.

At the wedding and reception her brother seemed smaller than he used to be, but in truth how would she know? He remained for her larger than life, moving about the festivities in a tailored sports jacket and new Levi’s, a black shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons, a pair of Top-Siders oiled as black as coffee. And no socks. The lack of socks infuriated her. How could she take him seriously? How couldn’t she? Except for this complete disregard for appearances, he looked as if he had never been surfing in all his life. No socks in winter in Bend, Oregon. She didn’t know the last time he had seen the ocean. Or even which one. She wanted to impress Rail and all his snowboard buddies, give them a glimpse of her own sporting bloodlines beyond her manic efforts to keep up with them, to prove herself worthy of their—what, company? Respect? Locker-room jokes? Gallons of weekend beer? But Phil wouldn’t—or couldn’t—engage. What was wrong with him? Was there anything wrong? Even back then?

“He looks like some sort of gnostic waif,” wrote David after she e-mailed him Phil’s picture, the last one she saw of her brother, six months before he was found dead in an overturned Jaguar a hundred yards off Highway 6 somewhere between Ely and Tonopah in the Nevada desert. “He looks like he’s been looking for God so hard he forgot to pay his water bill.”

She laughed reading that. This was exactly what she liked about David, his humor, the rich language, the odd things he said that made perfect sense to her. Ten years with Rail and he still just wanted to get air. Get happy. Get hammered. Get laid. She had no one to blame but herself. And now—of course—David is just as eager as the next guy to get her undressed—“Get on with it,” he has begun to say.

She had no idea where the picture came from, where it was taken, how Phil had even known where to send it. But the latter was no issue whatsoever. It’s the 21st century, she thinks; even a Luddite like Phil can find me online.

The picture was in an e-mail titled “Yours.” There were no other words; just her brother, fur-chested, red board-shorts riding low on his still-slender hips, the incongruous gray whiskers, the haircut of a Buddhist monk, the wiry frame, his pale, pale eyes—all of it some sort of testimony, but to what she couldn’t tell. Because every time she looked again at the picture, or saw it in her mind’s eye, her attention was drawn unremittingly to the line of surf in the background, which she knew was her clue to where Phil had been, and to the hand of an arm wrapped around her brother’s waist, the hand of someone otherwise hidden or cropped from the frame.

“Nothing was wrong with him,” said the state patrolman assigned to call the next of kin. “No alcohol. No drugs. Must’ve fallen asleep.”

“In the middle of the day?” she asked, already trying to make sense of a world in which her brother no longer existed.

“People get tired at any hour, ma’am. Especially when they’re alone.”

But he hadn’t been alone, she felt like shouting into the phone. Not six months ago, not ever. He knew without question, she believed, how deeply she cared for him, how she admired him, idolized him. He had no right to even feel alone, she argued insensibly with herself, an argument she soon knew she would never win just as she knew—if she knew anything about their lives—that her brother had sent that picture because of the hidden person in it. So that she, his sister, would never know who it was, what she, the girl, the woman, looked like—nor how she, whoever it was, looked at him.

It’s Rail who shows up first.

She sees his 4Runner coming up the road from Macks Canyon, his Spey rod extending from the rack on the hood up over the cab like an oversize antenna. He slows down above the Rattlesnake campground—certainly looking for her—and then he speeds off upriver and out of view. Minutes later, the Toyota comes creeping back down the road, Rail having spotted her car, no doubt, and now searching through the trees for sign of her at water’s edge.

The arrangement for the day had been simple enough; more and more they both agreed they needed to take every opportunity to stay out of each other’s way. This made perfect sense, steelheading. Cover more runs, said Rail, you cover more water. Early in the season, their chances of finding a fish were slim enough. They certainly weren’t going to risk the kind of blowups they were prone to of late by spending a day together in Rail’s boat. They had driven up from Bend before first light, taking separate vehicles for a number of hollow pretenses: while Rail headed down to Macks to claim a campsite, she could start fishing; if Rail wanted to spend the night and fish the following morning, he was free to stay; they both had favorite runs they could give their full attention to; cover more runs, you cover more water.

Rail’s rig disappears behind the wall of willows on the far bank as he leaves the road and drops into the campground. Sarah thinks she can hear the engine shut down but she isn’t sure. She waits for the sound of a door closing, only to be startled by a pair of mergansers, their wings beating like the legs of sprinters, veering off sharply to avoid passing directly over her head.

Sunlight has left the canyon, and the sound of the ducks rushing upstream seems to hang above the river like footfalls in an empty room. She follows the birds until they vanish around the bend, expecting any moment to see another boat float into view. If she’s going to get wet, she decides, she had better do it soon.

When David’s pickup appears, stirring dust not yet settled from both passes by Rail, she feels more despondent than fearful of the inevitable consequences of her duplicity. David’s speed, she notes, replicates Rail’s exactly. Near the top of each thigh she feels a light vibration, much like the feel of the current-swept branch that took her rod. Her knees and ankles ache, and she realizes she has been standing still for so long, at the edge of the water, that she can’t identify the surface of her skin inside the baggy weight of her waders.

David slows and turns into the campground. She had told him she’d be fishing along the lower access road. He said he’d probably hang out around Beavertail; maybe he’d run into her. She wades in up to her knees. Men never just run into you, she thinks. They come looking for you like heat-seeking missiles.

She studies the break in the willows, the water up to her waist. A breath of wind runs across the surface of the eddy, the temperature gradients sorting themselves out. Bowed limbs sway about the gap of the path. She hears voices. Both men know each other, know about each other, in the way they must always know in situations like these. The trick is never to lie, she thinks, but to keep the truth sealed in your heart.

She checks her wading belt and edges into the river, her eyes drawn to the confused currents twisting below the last tumble of rapids before unraveling and sliding off in a gentle sweep of gathering energy. She remembers standing in a similar light near day’s end, half her broken board under one arm following a vicious wipeout and exhausting swim on a huge day at Petacalco along the jungled coast of Michoacan. She relished the feel of the coarse gritty sand stirred by the shorebreak, the solid ground beneath her feet. Outside, her brother took off late on a set wave that stopped her breathing until he made the drop and pulled off one of his signature turns and set up for a barrel that stopped her breathing again. There was nothing to do but wait—and when her brother reappeared, seemingly alone in the cosmos, she knew that if she continued to try to keep up with him, she would die trying.

The water nears the tops of her waders before she feels herself lifting off her feet. Rail and David stand beneath the willows, looking upstream and down. Through the fading light she makes out their expressions of concern, whether for her or for their own uncertain futures she can’t tell.

Let them figure it out, she thinks, pushing free of the bottom. Dog-paddling, she starts back across the river, wondering where she’ll end up downstream.

Scott Sadil lives and writes in Hood River, Oregon. “Wading Home” is adapted from Lost in Wyoming, a collection of fiction due out later this spring from Barclay Creek Press.

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